This afternoon, a man wearing an ID badge with a pink ribbon rang our doorbell collecting money for “breast cancer”. I don’t know which breast cancer cause or organisation he represented – I didn’t even open my security door. Rather than giving him the following explanation, I simply told him that we were not in a position to assist. I felt some regret, but also some anger.
Australian consumers have been thoroughly trained over the past few years to recognize that pink and/or a pink ribbon means “breast cancer” and that fundraising for breast cancer awareness and research is a “good thing”. But conventional wisdom tells us too that you can have too much of a good thing.
As someone who has taken a close professional interest in this subject for several years (see my previous pieces in Crikey) I am probably better informed than many. Yet, if I am confused and cynical about the “pinkwash”, where does that leave the average consumer?
No breast cancer organisation has sole rights to the use of the colour pink or the pink ribbon motif, although many have trademarked specific design configurations and slogans. But some seem content to allow consumers to be guided and reassured by the general impressions and emotions conveyed by pink and the pink ribbon without getting specific about their causes.
And marketers that produce special pink products on the back of claims that they support breast cancer causes also rely on general consumer goodwill. The potential for exploitation is obvious: in the US, growing concern about consumer confusion and the potential for marketers to make misleading claims about funding provided through sales of pink products led to a community campaign by Breast Cancer Action called “Think Before You Pink”.
Now it seems Australia’s breast cancer organisations are themselves acknowledging the potential for consumer confusion and recognising the need to compete for share of voice, share of the consumer's mind and the discretionary breast cancer dollar.
For example, the National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF) now describes itself as "the leading (my emphasis) community-funded organisation in Australia raising money for research into the prevention, detection and treatment of breast cancer". Use of the word "leading" points clearly to competition – if you don’t have competitors, then “leading” is meaningless and pointless.
Breast Cancer Network Australia, which calls itself “the peak (my emphasis) national organisation for Australians personally affected by breast cancer” has been up-front about the risks of confusion for some time. In March 2008, BCNA convened a collaborative meeting between what it calls Australia’s “big three” breast cancer organisations – the NBCF, the National Breast and Ovarian Cancer Centre (NBOCC) and the BCNA – “to discuss ways we can best work together to support each other”.
Of course, identifying a “big three” naturally consigns other organisations to some kind of second tier, although the basis for this classification isn’t clear. High-profile omissions from this list include the McGrath Foundation, which raises money “to place breast care nurses in hospitals and to educate young women to become breast aware”, and the Breast Cancer Institute of Australia (BCIA) which “supports collaborative clinical trial research” in breast cancer treatment and prevention and is sponsored by cosmetics company Avon.
But you can’t expect consumers to get their heads around this hierarchy or to understand how the different organizations might complement each other (if indeed they do).
Eighteen months after the BCNA-led pow-wow, the situation is no clearer. Here it is mid-September and someone is doorknocking for “breast cancer” funds, yet I read on the NBCF website a call for volunteers for October which is “Breast Cancer Month”. BCNA’s “Pink Lady” and “pink bun” campaign takes place in April-May, with a focus on Mother’s Day (second Sunday in May). But Michel’s Patisserie will probably once again roll out the Pink Ribbon cupcakes this October in support of NBCF.
As the BCNA website still says “We all know there is confusion in the community about the roles of the three major national breast cancer organizations”. Yeah, and the rest…
That confusion can only continue to grow and, with it, the very real risk of consumer cynicism, mistrust and disinterest in what remains a vital endeavour.